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The New Orleans Hornets tried to make moves this off-season. With their superstar Chris Paul quietly demanding a trade during the summer before being convinced to hang on for another year in a face-to-face meeting with Hornets’ brass, new GM Dell Demps was forced to make some kind of noise this summer. Paul would probably be secretly irate if the Hornets kept the same group that he couldn’t succeed with last season around.
The pressure that Paul put on the organization to win now is something that the front office needed to hear in order to get them on the phone, talking to GMs around the league in an attempt to find Paul some quality teammates. But unfortunately for the Hornets, and mostly Paul, the pressure had a negative result. Demps made some moves, but most if not all of them were questionable.
The first mistake New Orleans made was trading their back-up plan for Paul. They traded Darren Collison, who had an excellent rookie season starting 37 games in CP3′s absences, who would give the Hornets a top 10 point guard in the league right away if Paul decided to leave in two years.
Obviously, the reason Demps dealt Collison is because they have a better point guard that’s unhappy with the team’s overall direction. That being said, you can’t trade one of the best young point guards in the league for an overpaid defensive specialist like Trevor Ariza just because Chris Paul is unhappy. In fact, I think this move has the reverse effect. Collison may play the same position as Paul but that’s not a sin. I’m fine with trading Collison so long as you get grade value for him while ridding yourself of some bad contracts. For Ariza, New Orleans should have thrown in Emeka Okafor‘s contract as well and asked for a couple of draft picks.
Ariza is a solid young player but he’s really only suited for one role, which is the one he played for the Lakers. Unfortunately for Trevor, in order for him to shine like he did in LA, he’s going to need a top notch team around him and that’s not something New Orleans will offer him. He fits with the Hornets in the sense that he’s athletic and a pretty good transition player. Any player with those qualities is going to thrive with Chris Paul running the point so there’s no reason Ariza shouldn’t. However, for a team that has been in desperate need of a wing scorer that can slash and shoot, the Hornets just traded for a small forward that has an awfully hard time putting the ball in the basket and fell off last season defensively without the Lakers system comforting him.
Ariza shot 39% from the field last season. 39%. And after a brilliant post-season run with the Lakers in which he was the designated three-point gunner, Trevor shot 33% from three during his first season with the Rockets. Those numbers are horrible and his $5.8 million contract doesn’t make that any better. During his breakout year with LA, Ariza had an offensive/defensive rating of 112/102. Last season with Houston? 99/106. There are no statistics that support the belief that Trevor can be a competent starter for any team, at least offensively, and considering he just got dealt to a team that needs a wing scorer more than anything, that’s a terrible fit.
I’m assuming the Hornets acquired him from Houston in hopes that he would become their defensive stoppers but that team doesn’t have enough reliable offensive options to start going for defensive specialists that won’t bring anything to the table on the other end. Ariza can still be an effective defender at six-foot-eight with long arms and underrated strength but can New Orleans really afford to put up with his ill-advised 16-foot jumpers for 35 minutes a night while they pray he gets a few stops and buckets in transition? I don’t think so.
And when you throw in the fact that the Hornets acquired forward Quincy Pondexter on draft night, a player I think is a better value for Ariza on a rookie contract with similar strengths and fewer weaknesses, I just can’t stand this move. I was hoping for Pondexter to get quality minutes this season but now Trevor Ariza will be sucking up the minutes at the forward spot and that really is a shame.
Just yesterday, the Hornets made another questionable move, shipping a first round pick, one that will likely be in the lottery, to the Portland Trail Blazers for undersized combo guard Jerryd Bayless. Some may say it was a good move to find a back up for Chris Paul but they already had the second best back-up in the league with Collison before dealing him and Bayless just isn’t a point guard. He’s a score-first guard that is below average when it comes to passing the ball and, though he can score in bunches when he gets hot, he’s below average shooter. In Portland, he was a unique player that can score in a pinch, but in New Orleans, he’s a basically another Marcus Thornton.
And Thornton’s the better player, to be honest. He too is an undersized guard that likes to attack the basket but he’s much better on the defensive end, from the perimeter with his jumpshot and never turns the ball over. Thornton was the other Hornets rookie to excel last season, shooting 37% from three-point range, 45% from the floor overall and 81% from the stripe. Thornton is a bit bigger than Bayless and has a better touch from the outside and he looks to have a brighter future as a Ben Gordon-like scoring guard off the bench. Why would New Orleans need to have two of those, one of which is a below average player overall.
The Hornets also sent forwards Darius Songaila and rookie Craig Brackins to the 76ers for guard Willie Green and center Jason Smith. The trade is a curious one because there is no clear cut reason as to why this deal took place. The Hornets most likely made this deal because Darius Songaila has a $4.8 million expiring contract but they are actually getting more than that back with Green’s $3.9 million deal and Smith’s $2.2 million contract.
Songaila might be the best player in this deal as of now. He brought some value to the Hornets last season as a big man that could stretch the floor. Other than that, he wasn’t an effective rebounder or defender, but his 43% shooting from 16-23 feet was a useful part of the Hornets offense as it mimicked David West‘s production when he was on the bench.
Not only did the Hornets give up the best player in the deal, which again, is Songaila, no matter how hard that is to believe, but they also gave up the player with the most potential in Brackins. Craig is a 22-year old rookie that is very versatile on the offensive end. He is similar to David West in that way and I thought playing the pick and roll with Chris Paul and being able to grow with the second unit would be an effective way for the Hornets to develop some more size.
In return, the Hornets got a below average seven footer that doesn’t like to go inside or take advantage of his height. That makes him a primarily pick and pop big man, which would make him a good fit with Chris Paul. The caveat? He shot 33% from mid-range last season. And Green, well he’s an undersized shooting guard that can’t rebound, draw fouls or shoot particularly well. The Hornets have never had a picture perfect scenario at the two guard spot but if he takes more than five minutes a game away from Marcus Thornton I think that’s a mistake.
New Orleans also completed some smaller deals, like trading Julian Wright to Toronto for Marco Belinelli. Belinelli is a below average player overall that has issues defensively, but he has won the starting shooting guard spot from Marcus Thornton with his play in the pre-season. The Hornets likely just want Thornton’s scoring in a reserve role to help the bench but nonetheless, Belinelli can stroke it from deep and isn’t a bad ball handler for an off guard. Point guard Curtis Jerrells was also acquired from the San Antonio Spurs, likely because he played for the Austin Toros, the Spurs D-League team, that Demps was the GM of last year.
With all of the new pieces on board, most of which I think will not be particularly good fits, the only real stability that exists in New Orleans outside of Paul is at the power forward and center spots.
David West has always been a favorite of mine. He has excellent range for a big man (hitting 45% of his shots from 16-23 feet last season), shoots it well from the free throw line and can occasionally drive to the basket if you overplay his shot (36% of his shots last season came at the rim). The pick-and-pop game with him is one of the more effective plays in basketball and it’s a beauty to see just how CP3 plans on getting the ball through two defenders to West after he finds his spot on the court. According to Synergy Sports Technology, West ranked as the 27t best big man in the pick and roll/pop last season, scoring 1.17 points per possession and was a 48% shooter in spot-up situations.
West isn’t a good rebounder for his position but he’s an above average passer that can also score in the post with his back to the basket. His jumper from the mid-range has been consistent over the years, so even if West sees a decline in athleticism that limits his ability to put the ball on the floor and get to the basket, he’ll still be a great shooter and CP3 will be able to create looks for him at the rim.
Emeka Okafor will man the center spot this season and while his contract is still very unappealing, the Hornets know they can expect a full season of rebounding and above average shot blocking from Okafor as well as extremely efficient scoring at the basket. Okafor rated as the 13th best big man in the pick and roll last season, scoring 1.26 points per possession, while also ranking 29th on offensive putbacks and 36th in transition. Okafor is a flawed player and will be one of the most overpaid players in the league, but he’s a capable starting center and one that will consistently produce when he isn’t asked to do too much.
This year will be an important one for Peja Stojakovic, who will be the highest paid Hornet this season at $14 million though his deal is in its final year, making his contract an attractive trade piece. Stojakovic has seen his true-shooting percentage dip for the past six seasons and his PER has tumbled as well. Due to injuries to his back and abdomen, Peja has seen his three-point percentage go from a career best 44% two years ago to 37% and though he is one of the league’s most underrated defensive players, he doesn’t bring much else to the table other than ball security. With rookie Quincy Pondexter waiting to take over the back-up small forward role and several teams looking to shed cap space before the new CBA hits, Peja could be out of New Orleans by the trade deadline.
As a team, the Hornets will have come together and adapt their games to mirror that of Chris Paul’s competitive drive. If the Hornets can feed off of his intensity this season, then perhaps New Orleans can make some noise this year and enter into the playoffs as a seventh or eighth seed. But this is a team that has a lot of role players that haven’t proven they can fill those roles on a year-to-year basis. Are the Hornets sure about what they will get from anyone outside of Paul, West and Okafor? I don’t think so. Best-case scenario is that Thornton evolves, Belinelli and Peja provide long-range sniping and Ariza contributes as a defensive stopper and occasional offensive weapon.
Those are lofty goals, though, and the lack of assurance that the Hornets will be a playoff team by the conclusion of Paul’s contract may force them to deal the face and foundation of their franchise just so they aren’t left with Emeka Okafor and a cast middling young players.
The Hornets responded, partly because they had to with Chris Paul’s injury, but they responded nonetheless. Darren Collison’s showing earned him a starting job with the Pacers and Marcus Thornton earned himself a big role with the Hornets this season with his play.
Last season, Thornton shot 50% from four spots on the court, the two corner three’s, a straight away 15-footer and anything within immediate range of the basket. Those corner three’s are obviously the most important, and with more playing time, we could see an increase in numbers on all of the other three point spots, too.
Marcus, who’s percentages were 45/37/81 last season, will only have one problem if he is able to stick his shots like he has the ability to do. That issue will be the comparisons to Ben Gordon. The way Thornton plays, which is, catch and shoot, dribble and shoot, or dribble and drive, there will rarely be any games where he puts up more than five assists or five rebounds, though the occasional lucky rebound may fall into his lap.
If his three’s are rimming out and his mid-range game results in a lot of bricks, then there is no reason to continue to play him if he isn’t creating for his teammates and rebounding the basketball like fellow second year player James Harden does. Harden can shoot the three, but he can also get his own shot, create for his teammates and create contact in the lane (I think Thornton is a good finisher at the rim, but he is not someone you expect to go to the line once he gets to the cup). Those differences between Harden and Thornton is the difference between Harden being a lottery pick and Thorton being a second round pick.
Unfortunately, Thornton will not get ideal playing time for a player in need of development. Marco Belinelli coming over from Toronto and Jerryd Bayless coming over from the Blazers, minutes at the two will not be all for Thornton as most expected they would. Thornton’s similarity to Ben Gordon may be a negative in some ways, but Marcus will likely end up playing the same role over the course of his career. His ability to score in bunches makes him a great fit for a sixth man role and the Hornets are a team in need of a go-to bench scorer when Paul and David West are out of the game. Having Belinelli in front of him is fine, but the addition of Bayless, a player that is very similar to Thornton (undersized combo guard that is best used in stretches), is a little curious.
And we may see the best example of that this season. Paul is not immune to the outside world, so the likelihood that he heard Deron Williams referred to as the best point guard in the league last season is probably 100%. Add in the emergence of several other top point guards like Rajon Rondo, Derrick Rose, Stephen Curry, Tyreke Evans, Brandon Jennings, Russell Westbrook and the looming emergence of John Wall and all of the sudden Paul has gone from having one of the best seasons in the history of the NBA in 2008-09, when he posted a ridiculous 30.04 PER as a point guard, to the second best point with several young pups frothing at the mouth to overthrow him.
Paul was already one of the most competitive players in the league and now that he’s been forced into a backseat by the media and fans, he’ll likely be playing with a chip on his shoulder. If you don’t think Paul is the kind of guy to respond to criticism or that those kinds of things motivate players, I’ll remind you that Paul scored 61 points in a high school basketball game after his grandfather died and he could have scored many more if he didn’t intentionally stop at 61, the age his grandpa died at.
There isn’t a whole lot that CP3 can’t do on the offensive end. I implore you to find a weakness in Paul’s offensive arsenal. The only thing you can form a convincing argument against is his three-point shot, but last season, even though he didn’t play all 82, Paul did convert three’s at a career high 41% rate. If he keeps his three-point percentage at or around 40% for the next few years, then Paul has a decent chance at entering the best point guard ever discussion when he retires, something I thought he can do as soon as entered into the league.
Paul’s career scoring average is just a tad below 20 points per game and his two best seasons had him a bit above that mark. With a bad ankle and knee, Paul saw that number dip a bit as he started shooting a bit more from the outside rather than using his unique quickness to get to the rim. Paul took just 2.9 shots per game at the rim last season after attempting 4.4 shots inside the paint a game the year before. But his game didn’t suffer overall because of fewer trips into the paint. Paul shot 45% from 16-23 feet last season and has consistently been above average from that range throughout his career, making him unguardable on the offensive end.
Hopefully, Paul’s knee will be healed up this season and we will get to see him attack the paint more this season. Paul is brilliant when he’s penetrating into a defense and he has little trouble finishing over the trees because of his creativity around the rim. If the defense crowds him, he can blow-by them, if they sag off of him, his three has become a good enough fallback option and if they play him straight up, he can take them off the dribble or pull-up from mid-range without losing an ounce of efficiency.
According to Synergy Sports Technology, Paul scored 1 point per possession last season, the 76th best mark in the league. And in isolation, Paul poured in an unbelievable 1.05 points per possession, the seventh best rate in the NBA, while shooting 48% from the field and 50% from three-point range in one-on-one situations. Paul also shot spot-up three’s at a 47% clip and if Jerryd Bayless can prove to be a better passer than he was last season, perhaps some off the ball sets could work for New Orleans thanks to Paul’s increased proficiency from range.
Paul is also one of the best passers in the entire league. Rajon Rondo has emerged as a brilliant playmaker over the past two seasons but Paul still remains the best passer in the league, posting the league’s best pure point rating by far last season. Paul led the league in assists from 2007-2009 and likely would have led it last season should he have played the entire season. Instead, Paul finished just a tad behind Steve Nash with 10.7 dishes a game to Nash’s 11.
The difference between the two and what makes Paul the better passer, at least in my mind, is that Nash finished last season with the 12th highest turnover ration among point guards while Paul posted the sixth lowest. Nash had 237 turnovers that were characterized as bad passes by 82games.com. In Paul’s last full season, 2008-09, he only had 113 bad passes. Add in the fact that the Suns played at the fourth fastest pace in the league last season while the Hornets routinely rank around the middle of the pact, giving Nash more possessions to use as well as more opportunities to get his players easy looks in transition. And then there’s the difference in talent on each other’s rosters, which clearly favors the Suns.
In the pick and roll, Paul created .94 points per possession last season, the 27th best rate in the league. He was efficient when pulling up from mid-range and his dishes to David West on the pop or Emeka Okafor on the roll where almost always picture perfect.
On defense, Paul is one of the best ball hawks in the league, capable of coming up with numerous steals on any given night. Much like his assist totals, Paul likely would have led the league in steals per game last season after topping the charts from 2007-09. In fact, two seasons ago, Paul came close to averaging an unbelievable three steals per game. Despite quick hands, CP3 will never be a great defender, as few ever are at the point guard spot, especially with the speedsters in the league nowadays. That being said, his ability to pick up extra possessions with steals is very valuable. Paul also ranked in the top quarter of point guards last season when it came to rebounding and he will likely average five to six a night for the duration of his career because of his ability to slither into the paint and pick-up lose balls.
In addition to his once in a generation skills, Paul also has all of the intangibles to be the leader of a championship team. Paul has merged two completely opposite leadership styles to become somewhat of a perfect leader. He’s got that Kobe style attitude towards his teammates at times, getting on his teammates when they don’t get to the right spot or pass up an open look which leads to an empty possession, and he’s got the LeBron/Kevin Durant thing going too, as he mentors his teammates and has fun with his guys at the same time. The difference is that you will never see Paul joking on the sidelines during a game (Unless he is dressed in a suit and tie) and he always has the Kobe scowl on his face and looks generally displeased with life even he’s got 25 points, 14 assists, nine boards and a few steals.
I’m expecting Paul to have a all-world season this year. He’s had a lot of time to recover from his knee injury, skipping the World Championships this summer in favor of increased rehab time. He’s angry that he has been pushed down the point guard totem poll, he’s determined to produce a championship for the Hornets before he has to break the city’s heart by leaving for a more beneficial landing spot, and he’s got the best collection of talents for a point guard perhaps ever. Paul doesn’t have the supporting cast to make the Hornets into a championship contender this season and he really never has, but he led a similarly unproven team to 56 wins three seasons ago and he should be considered a darkhorse MVP candidate entering into the season.
- Chris Paul will average 22 points, 11 assists, six rebounds and 2.8 steals per game this season while shooting 50% from the field, 40% from three and 88% from the free throw line.
- David West will produce the same numbers as he did last season.
- Trevor Ariza will see a slight increase in true shooting percentage thanks to Chris Paul.
- Quincy Pondexter will score 15 points per game on a PER36 basis.